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  • 1915
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“Well, you don’t seem crazy about it. What’s the matter?” Robert Grant Burns stood in his favorite attitude with his hands on his hips and his feet far apart, and looked down at Jean with a secret anxiety in his eyes. Without realizing it in the least, Jean’s opinion had come to have a certain weight with Robert Grant Burns. “What’s wrong with that?” Burns, having sat up until two o’clock to finish that particular scenario to his liking, plainly resented the expression on Jean’s face while she read it.

“Oh, nothing, only I’m getting awfully sick of these kidnap-and-rescue, and kiss-in-the-last-scene pictures, and Wild West stuff without a real Western man in the whole thing. I’d like to do something real for a change.”

Robert Grant Burns grunted and reached for his slighted brain-child. “What you want? Mother on, knitting. Girl washing dishes. Lover arrives; they sit on front steps and spoon. Become engaged. Lover hitches up team, girl climbs into wagon, they drive to town. Ten scenes of driving to town. Lover gets out, ties team in front of courthouse. Goes in and gets license. Three scenes of license business. Goes out. Two scenes of driving to minister and hitching team to gate. One scene of getting to door. One scene getting inside the house. One scene preacher calling his wife and hired girl. One scene `Do you take this woman,’ one scene `I do.’ Fifteen scenes getting team untied and driving back to ranch. That’s about as much pep as there is in real life in the far West, these days. Something like that would suit you, maybe. It don’t suit the people who pay good nickels and dimes to get a thrill, though.”

“Neither does this sort of junk, if they’ve got any sense. Think of paying nickel after nickel to see Lee Milligan rush to the girl’s door, knock, learn the fatal news, stagger back and clap his hand to his brow and say `Great Heaven! GONE!'” Jean, stirred to combat by the sarcasm of Robert Grant Burns, did the stagger and the hand-to-brow and great-heaven scene with a realism that made Pete Lowry turn his back suddenly. “They’ve seen Gil abduct me or Muriel seven times in a perfectly impossible manner, and they–oh, why don’t you give them something REAL? Things that are thrilling and dangerous and terrible do happen out here, Mr. Burns. Real adventures and real tragedies–” She stopped, and Burns turned his eyes involuntarily toward the kitchen. He had heard all about the history of the Lazy A, though he had been very careful to hide the fact that he had heard it. Jean’s glance, following that of her director, was a revealing one. She bit her lip; and in a moment she went on, with her chin held a shade higher and her pride revolting against subterfuge.

“I didn’t mean that,” she said quietly. “But– well, up to a certain point, I don’t mind if you put in real things, if it will be good picture-stuff. You’re featuring me, anyway, it seems. Listen.” Jean’s face changed. Her eyes took that farseeing look of the dreamer. She was looking full at Burns, but he knew that she did not see him at all. She was looking at a mental picture of her own conjuring, he judged. He stood still and waited curiously, wondering, to use his manner of speech, what the girl was going to spring now.

“Listen: Instead of all this impossible piffle, let’s start a real story. I–I’ve–“

“What kind of a real story?” The tone of Robert Grant Burns was carefully non-committal, but his eyes betrayed his eagerness. The girl did have some real ideas, sometimes! And Robert Grant Burns was not the one to refuse a real idea because it did not come from his own brain.

“Well,” Jean flushed with an adorable shyness at the apparent egotism of her idea, “since you seem to want me for the central figure in everything, suppose we start a story like this: Suppose I am left here at the Lazy A with my mother to take care of and a ranch and a lot of cattle; and suppose it’s a hard proposition, because there’s really a gang of rustlers that have been running off stock and never getting caught, and they have a grudge against my family and grab our cattle every chance they get. Suppose–suppose they killed my brother when he was about to round them up, and they want to drive me and my mother out of the country. Scare us out, you know. Well,–” she hesitated and glanced diffidently at the boys who had edged up to listen,–“that would leave room for all kinds of feature stuff. Say that I have just one or two boys that I can depend on, boys that I know are loyal. With an outfit the size of ours, that keeps me in the saddle every day and all day; and I would have some narrow escapes, I reckon. You’ve got your rustlers all made to order,–only I’d make them up differently, if I were doing it. Have them look real, you know, instead of stagey.” (Whereat Robert Grant Burns winced.) “Lee could be one of my loyal cowboys; you’d want some dramatic acting, I reckon, and he could do that. But I’d want one puncher who can ride and shoot and handle a rope. For that, to help me do the real work in the picture, I want Lite Avery. There are things I can do that you have never had me do, for the simple reason that you don’t know the life well enough ever to think of them. Real stunts, not these made-to-order, shoot-the-villain-and-run-to-the-arms-of-the-hero stuff. I’d have to have Lite Avery; I wouldn’t start without him.”

“Well, go on.” Robert Grant Burns still tried to sound non-committal, but he was plainly eager to hear all that she had to say.

“Well, that’s the idea. They’re trying to drive us out of the country, without really hurting me. And I’ve got my mind set on staying. Not only that, but I believe they killed my brother, and I’m going to hunt them down and break up their gang or die in the attempt. There’s your plot. It needn’t be overdone in the least, to have thrills enough. And there would be all kinds of chance for real range-stuff, like the handling of cattle and all that.

“We can use this ranch just as it is, and have the outlaws down next the river. I’m glad you haven’t taken any scenes that show the ranch as a whole. You’ve stuck to your close-up, great-heaven scenes so much,” she went on with merciless frankness, “that you’ve really not cheapened the place by showing more than a little bit at a time.

“You might start by making Lee up for my brother, and kill him in the first reel; show the outlaws when they shoot him and run off with a bunch of stock they’re after. Lite can find him and bring him home. Lite would know just how to do that sort of thing, and make people see it’s real stuff. I believe he’d show he was a real cow-puncher, even to the people who never saw one. There’s an awful lot of difference between the real thing and your actors.” She was so perfectly sincere and so matter-of-fact that the men she criticised could do no more than grin.

“You might, for the sake of complications, put a traitor and spy on the ranch. Oh, I tell you! Have Hepsibah be the mother of one of the outlaws. She wouldn’t need to do any acting; you could show her sneaking out in the dark to meet her son and tell him what she has overheard. And show her listening, perhaps, through the crack in a door. Mrs. Gay would have to be the mother. Gil says that Hepsibah has the figure of a comedy cook and what he calls a character face. I believe we could manage her all right, for what little she would have to do, don’t you?”

Jean having poured out her inspiration with a fluency born of her first enthusiasm, began to feel that she had been somewhat presumptuous in thus offering advice wholesale to the highest paid director of the Great Western Film Company. She blushed and laughed a little, and shrugged her shoulders.

“That’s just a suggestion,” she said with forced lightness. “I’m subject to attacks of acute imagination, sometimes. Don’t mind me, Mr. Burns. Your scenario is a very nice scenario, I’m sure. Do you want me to be a braid-down-the-back girl in this? Or a curls-around-the-face girl?”

Robert Grant Burns stood absent-mindedly tapping his left palm with the folded scenario which Jean had just damned by calling it a very nice scenario. Nice was not the adjective one would apply to it in sincere admiration. Robert Grant Burns himself had mentally called it a hummer. He did not reply to Jean’s tentative apology for her own plot-idea. He was thinking about the idea itself.

Robert Grant Burns was not what one would call petty. He would not, for instance, stick to his own story if he considered that Jean’s was a better one. And, after all, Jean was now his leading woman, and it is not unusual for a leading woman to manufacture her own plots, especially when she is being featured by her company. There was no question of hurt pride to be debated within the mind of him, therefore. He was just weighing the idea itself for what it was worth.

“Seems to me your plot-idea isn’t so much tamer than mine, after all.” He tested her shrewdly after a prolonged pause. “You’ve got a killing in the first five hundred feet, and outlaws and rustling–“

“Oh, but don’t you see, it isn’t the skeleton that makes the difference; it’s the kind of meat you put on the bones! Paradise Lost would be a howling melodrama, if some of you picture-people tried to make it. You’d take this plot of mine and make it just like these pictures I’ve been working in, Mr. Burns: Exciting and all that, but not the real West after all; spectacular without being probable. What I mean,–I can’t explain it to you, I’m afraid; but I have it in my head.” She looked at him with that lightening of the eyes which was not a smile, really, but rather the amusement which might grow into laughter later on.

“You’d better fine me for insubordination,” she drawled whimsically, “and tell me whether it’s to be braids or curls, so I can go and make up.” At that moment she saw Gil Huntley beckoning to her with a frantic kind of furtiveness that was a fair mixture of pinched-together eyebrows and slight jerkings of the head, and a guarded movement of his hand that hung at his side. Gil, she thought, was trying to draw her away before she went too far with her trouble-inviting freedom of speech. She laughed lazily.

“Braids or curls?” she insisted. “And please, sir, I won’t do so no more, honest.”

Robert Grant Burns looked at her from under his eyebrows and made a sound between his grunt of indignation and his chuckle of amusement. “Sure you won’t?” he queried shortly. “Stay the way you are, if you want to; chances are you won’t go to work right away, anyhow.”

Jean flashed him a glance of inquiry. Did that mean that she had at last gone beyond the limit? Was Robert Grant Burns going to FIRE her? She looked at Gil, who was sauntering off with the perfectly apparent expectation that she would follow him; and Mrs. Gay, who was regarding her with a certain melancholy conviction that Jean’s time as leading woman was short indeed. She pursed her lips with a rueful resignation, and followed Gil to the spring behind the house.

“Say, you mustn’t hand out things like that, Jean!” he protested, when they were quite out of sight and hearing of the others. “Let me give you a tip, girl. If you’ve got any photo-play ideas that are worth talking about, don’t go spreading them out like that for Bobby to pick and choose!”

“Pick to pieces, you mean,” Jean corrected. help it; he’s putting on some awfully stagey plots, and they cost just as much to produce as–“

“Listen here. You’ve got me wrong. That plot of yours could be worked up into a dandy series; the idea of a story running through a lot of pictures is great. What I mean is, it’s worth something. You don’t have to give stuff like that away, make him a present of it, you know. I just want to put you wise. If you’ve got anything that’s worth using, make ’em pay for it. Put ‘er into scenario form and sell it to ’em. You’re in this game to make money, so why overlook a bet like that?”

“Oh, Gil! Could I?”

“Sure, you could! No reason why you shouldn’t, if you can deliver the goods. Burns has been writing his own plays to fit his company; but aside from the features you’ve been putting into it, it’s old stuff. He’s a darned good director, and all that, but he hasn’t got the knack of building real stories. You see what I mean. If you have, why–“

“I wonder,” said Jean with a sudden small doubt of her literary talents, “if I have!”

“Sure, you have!” Gil’s faith in Jean was of the kind that scorns proof. “You see, you’ve got the dope on the West, and he knows it. Why, I’ve been watching how he takes the cue from you right along for his features. Ever since you told Lee Milligan how to lay a saddle on the ground, Burns has been getting tips; and half the time you didn’t even know you were giving them. Get into this game right, Jean. Make ’em pay for that kind of thing.”

Jean regarded him thoughtfully, tempted to yield. “Mrs. Gay says a hundred dollars a week–“

“It’s good pay for a beginner. She’s right, and she’s wrong. They’re featuring you in stuff that nobody else can do. Who would they put in your place, to do the stunts you’ve been doing? Muriel Gay was a good actress, and as good a Western lead as they could produce; and you know how she stacked up alongside you. You’re in a class by yourself, Jean. You want to keep that in mind. They aren’t just trying to be nice to you; it’s hard-boiled business with the Great Western. You’re going awfully strong with the public. Why, my chum writes me that you’re announced ahead on the screen at one of the best theaters on Broadway! `Coming: Jean Douglas in So-and-so.’ Do you know what that means? No, you don’t; of course not. But let me tell you that it means a whole lot! I wish I’d had a chance to tip you off to a little business caution before you signed that contract. That salary clause should have been doctored to make a sliding scale of it. As it is, you’re stuck for a year at a hundred dollars a week, unless you spring something the contract does not cover. Don’t give away any more dope. You’ve got an idea there, if Burns will let you work up to it. Make ’em pay for it.”

“O-h-h, Gil!” came the throaty call of Burns; and Gil, with a last, earnest warning, left her hurriedly.

Jean sat down on a rock and meditated, her chin in her palms, and her elbows on her knees. Vague shadows; of thoughts clouded her mind and then slowly clarified into definite ideas. Unconsciously she had been growing away from her first formulated plans. She was gradually laying aside the idea of reaching wealth and fame by way of the story-trail. She was almost at the point of admitting to herself that her story, as far as she had gone with it, could never be taken seriously by any one with any pretense of intelligence. It was too unreal, too fantastic. It was almost funny, in the most tragic parts. She was ready now to dismiss the book as she had dismissed her earlier ambitions to become a poet.

But if she and Lite together could really act a story that had the stamp of realism which she instinctively longed for, surely it would be worth while. And if she herself could build the picture story they would later enact before the camera,–that would be better, much better than writing silly things about an impossible heroine in the hope of later selling the stuff!

Automatically her thoughts swung over to the actual building of the scenes that would make for continuity of her lately-conceived plot. Because she knew every turn and every crook of that coulee and every board in the buildings snuggled within it, she began to plan her scenes to fit the Lazy A, and her action to fit the spirit of the country and those countless small details of life which go to make what we call the local color of the place.

There never had been an organized gang of outlaws just here in this part of the country, but–there might have been. Her dad could remember when Sid Cummings and his bunch hung out in the Bad Lands fifty miles to the east of there. Neither had she ever had a brother, for that matter; and of her mother she had no more than the indistinct memory of a time when there had been a long, black box in the middle of the living-room, and a lot of people, and tears which fell upon her face and tickled her nose when her father held her tightly in his arms.

But she had the country, and she had Lite Avery, and to her it was very, very easy to visualize a story that had no foundation in fact. It was what she had done ever since she could remember–the day-dreaming that had protected her from the keen edge of her loneliness.

CHAPTER XVIII

A NEW KIND OF PICTURE

“What you doing now?” Robert Grant Burns came around the corner of the house looking for her, half an hour later, and found her sitting on the doorstep with the old atlas on her knees and her hat far back on her head, scribbling away for dear life.

Jean smiled abstractedly up at him. “Why, I’m– why-y, I’m becoming a famous scenario writer! Do you want me to go and plaster my face with grease- paint, and become a mere common leading lady again?”

“No, I don’t.” Robert Grant Burns chuckled fatly and held out his hand with a big, pink cameo on his little finger. “Let’s see what a famous scenario looks like. What is it,–that plot you were telling me awhile ago?”

“Why, yes. I’m putting on the meat.” There was a slight hesitation before Jean handed him the pages she had done. “I expect it’s awfully crude,” she apologized, with one of her diffident spells. “I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me.”

Robert Grant Burns was reading rapidly, mentally photographing the scenes as he went along. He held out his hand again without looking toward her. “Lemme take your pencil a minute. I believe I’d have a panoram of the coulee,–a long shot from out there in the meadow. And show the brother and you leaving the house and riding toward the camera; at the gate, you separate. You’re going to town, say. He rides on toward the hills. That fixes you both as belonging here at the ranch, identifies you two and the home ranch both in thirty feet or so of the film, with a leader that tells you’re brother and sister. See what I mean?” He scribbled a couple of lines, crossed out a couple, and went on reading to where he had interrupted Jean in the middle of a sentence.

“I see you’re writing in a part for that Lite Avery; how do you know he’d do it? Or can put it over if he tries? He don’t look to me like an actor.”

“Lite,” declared Jean with a positiveness that would have thrilled Lite, had he heard her, “can put over anything he tries to put over. And he’ll do it, if I tell him he must!” Which showed what were Jean’s ideas, at least on the subject of which was the master.

“What you going to call it a The Perils of the Prairie, say?” Burns abandoned further argument on the subject of Lite’s ability.

“Oh, no! That’s awfully cheap. That would stamp it as a melodrama before any of the picture appeared on the screen.”

Robert Grant Burns had not been serious; he had been testing Jean’s originality. “Well, what will we call it, then?”

“Oh, we’ll call it–” Jean nibbled the rubber on her pencil and looked at him with that unseeing, introspective gaze which was a trick of hers. “We’ll call it–does it hurt if we use real names that we’ve a right to?” She got a head-shake for answer. “Well, we’ll call it,–let’s just call it–Jean, of the Lazy A. Would that sound as if–“

“Great! Girl, you’re a winner! Jean, of the Lazy A! Say, that title alone will jump the releases ten per cent., if I know the game. Featuring Jean herself; pictures made right at the Lazy A Ranch. Say, the dope I can give our publicity man–“

Thereupon Jean, remembering Gil Huntley’s lecture on the commercial side of the proposition, startled his enthusiasm with one naive question.

“How much will the Great Western Film Company pay me extra for furnishing the story I play in? “

“How much?” Robert Grant Burns blurted the words automatically.

“Yes. How much? If it will jump your releases ten per cent. they ought to pay me quite a lot more than they’re paying me now.”

“You’re doing pretty well as it is,” Burns reminded her, with a visible dampening of his eagerness.

“For keeping your cut-and-dried stories from falling flat, yes. But for writing the kind of play that will have just as many `punches’ and still be true to life, and then for acting it all out and putting in those punches,–that’s a different matter, Mr. Burns. And you’ll have to pay Lite a decent salary, or I’ll quit right here. I’m thinking up stunts for us two that are awfully risky. You’ll have to pay for that. But it will be worth while. You wait till you see Lite in action!”

Gil would have been exuberant over the literal manner in which Jean was taking his advice and putting it to the test, had he overheard her driving her bargain with Robert Grant Burns. He would have been exuberant, but he would never have dared to say the things that Jean said, or to have taken the stand that she took. Robert Grant Burns found himself very much in the position which Lite had occupied for three years. He had well-defined ideas upon the subject before them, and he had the outer semblance of authority; but his ideas and his authority had no weight whatever with Jean, since she had made up her mind.

Before Jean left the subject of salary, Robert Grant Burns found himself committed to a promise of an increase, provided that Jean really “delivered the goods” in the shape of a scenario serial, and did the stunts which she declared she could and would do.

Before she settled down to the actual planning of scenes, Robert Grant Burns had also yielded to her demands for Lite Avery, though you may think that he thereby showed himself culpably weak, unless you realize what sort of a person Jean was in argument. Without having more than a good-morning acquaintance with Lite, Burns agreed to put him on “in stock” and to pay him the salary Jean demanded for him, provided that, in the try-out of the first picture, Lite should prove he could deliver the goods. Burns was always extremely firm in the matter of having the “goods” delivered; that was why he was the Great Western’s leading director. Mere dollars he would yield, if driven into a corner and kept there long enough, but he must have results.

These things being settled, they spent about two hours on the doorstep of Jean’s room, writing the first reel of the story; which is to say that Jean wrote, and Burns took each sheet from her hands as it was finished, and read and made certain technical revisions now and then. Several times he grunted words of approbation, and several times he let his fat, black cigar go out, while he

visualized the scenes which Jean’s flying pencil portrayed.

“I’ll go over and get Lite,” she said at last, rubbing the cramp out of her writing-hand and easing her shoulders from their strain of stooping. “There’ll be time, while you send the machine after some real hats for your rustlers. Those toadstool things were never seen in this country till you brought them in your trunk; and this story is going to be real! Your rustlers won’t look much different from the punchers, except that they’ll be riding different horses; we’ll have to get some paint somewhere and make a pinto out of that wall-eyed cayuse Gil rides mostly. He’ll lead the rustlers, and you want the audience to be able to spot him a mile off. Lite and I will fix the horse; we’ll put spots on him like a horse Uncle Carl used to own.”

“Maybe you can’t get Lite,” Burns pointed out, eyeing her over a match blaze. “He never acted to me like he had the movie-fever at all. Passes us up with a nod, and has never showed signs of life on the subject. Lee can ride pretty well,” he added artfully, “even if he wasn’t born in the saddle. And we can fake that rope work.”

“All right; you can send the machine in with a wire to your company for a leading woman.” Jean picked up her gloves and turned to pull the door shut behind her, and by other signs and tokens made plain her intention to leave.

“Oh, well, you can see if he’ll come. I said I’d try him out, but–“

“He’ll come. I told you that before.” Jean stopped and looked at her director coldly. “And you’ll keep your word. And we won’t have any fake stuff in this, –except the spots on the pinto.” She smiled then. “We wouldn’t do that, but there isn’t a pinto in the country right now that would be what we want. You had better get your bunch together, because I’ll be back in a little while with Lite.”

As it happened, Lite was on his way to the Lazy A, and met Jean in the bottom of the sandy hollow. His eyes lightened when he saw her come loping up to him. But when she was close enough to read the expression of his face, it was schooled again to the frank friendship which Jean always had accepted as a matter of course.

“Hello, Lite! I’ve got a job for you with the movies,” Jean announced, as soon as she was within speaking distance. “You can come right back with me and begin. It’s going to be great. We’re going to make a real Western picture, Lite, you and I. Lee and Gil and all the rest will be in it, of course; but we’re going to put in the real West. And we’re going to put in the ranch,–the REAL Lazy A, Lite. Not these dinky little sets that Burns has toggled up with bits of the bluff showing for background, but the ranch just as it–it used to be.” Jean’s eyes grew wistful while she looked at him and told him her plans.

“I’m writing the scenario myself,” she explained, “and that’s why you have to be in it. I’ve written in stuff that the other boys can’t do to save their lives. REAL stuff, Lite! You and I are going to run the ranch and punch the cows,–Lazy A cattle, what there are left of them,–and hunt down a bunch of rustlers that have their hangout somewhere down in the breaks; we don’t know just where, yet. The places we’ll ride, they’ll need an airship to follow with the camera! I haven’t got it all planned yet, but the first reel is about done; we’re going to begin on it this afternoon. We’ll need you in the first scenes,–just ranch scenes, with you and Lee; he’s my brother, and he’ll get killed– Now, what’s the matter with you?” She stopped and eyed him disapprovingly. “Why have you got that stubborn look to your mouth? Lite, see here. Before you say a word, I want to tell you that you are not to refuse this. It–it means money, Lite; for you, and for me, too. And that means–dad at home again. Lite–“

Bite looked at her, looked away and bit his lips. It was long since he had seen tears in Jean’s steady, brown eyes, and the sight of them hurt him intolerably. There was nothing that he could say to strengthen her faith, absolutely nothing. He did not see how money could free her father before his sentence expired. Her faith in her dad seemed to Lite a wonderful thing, but he himself could not altogether share it, although he had lately come to feel a very definite doubt about Aleck’s guilt. Money could not help them, except that it could buy back the Lazy A and restock it, and make of it the home it had been three years ago.

Lite, in the secret heart of him, did not want Jean to set her heart on doing that. Lite was almost in a position to do it himself, just as he had planned and schemed and saved to do, ever since the day when he took Jean to the Bar Nothing, and announced to her that he intended to take care of her in place of her father. He had wanted to surprise Jean; and Jean, with her usual headlong energy bent upon the same object, seemed in a fair way to forestall him, unless he moved very quickly.

“Lite, you won’t spoil everything now, just when I’m given this great opportunity, will you?” Jean’s voice was steady again. She could even meet his eyes without flinching. “Gil says it’s a great opportunity, in every way. It’s a series of pictures, really, and they are to be called `Jean, of the Lazy A.’ Gil says they will be advertised a lot, and make me famous. I don’t care about that; but the company will pay me more, and that means–that means that I can get out and find Art Osgood sooner, and–get dad home. And you will have to help. The whole thing, as I have planned it, depends upon you, Lite. The riding and the roping, and stuff like that, you’ll have to do. You’ll have to work right alongside me in all that outdoor stuff, because I am going to quit doing all those spectacular, stagey stunts, and get down to real business. I’ve made Burns see that there will be money in it for his company, so he is perfectly willing to let me go ahead with it and do it my way. Our way, Lite, because, once you start with it, you can help me plan things.” Whereupon, having said almost everything she could think of that would tend to soften that stubborn look in Lite’s face, Jean waited.

Lite did a great deal of thinking in the next two or three minutes, but being such a bottled-up person, he did not say half of what he thought; and Jean, closely as she watched his face, could not read what was in his mind. Of Aleck he thought, and the slender chance there was of any one doing what Jean hoped to do; of Art Osgood, and the meager possibility that Art could shed any light upon the killing of Johnny Croft; of the Lazy A, and the probable price that Carl would put upon it if he were asked to sell the ranch and the stock; of the money he had already saved, and the chance that, if he went to Carl now and made him an offer, Carl would accept. He weighed mentally all the various elements that went to make up the depressing tangle of the whole affair, and decided that he would write at once to Rossman, the lawyer who had defended Aleck, and put the whole thing into his hands. He would then know just where he stood, and what he would have to do, and what legal steps he must take.

He looked at Jean and grinned a little. “I’m not pretty enough for a picture actor,” he said whimsically. “Better let me be a rustler and wear a mask, if you don’t want folks to throw fits.”

“You’ll be what I want you to be,” Jean told him with the little smile in her eyes that Lite had learned to love more than he could ever say. “I’m going to make us both famous, Lite. Now, come on, Bobby Burns has probably chewed up a whole box of those black cigars, waiting for us to show up.”

I am not going to describe the making of “Jean, of the Lazy A.” It would be interesting, but this is not primarily a story of the motion-picture business, remember. It is the story of the Lazy A and the problem that both Jean and Lite were trying to solve. The Great Western Film Company became, through sheer chance, a factor in that problem, and for that reason we have come into rather close touch with them; but aside from the fact that Jean’s photo-play brought Lite into the company and later took them both to Los Angeles, this particular picture has no great bearing upon the matter.

Robert Grant Burns had intended taking his company back to Los Angles in August, when the hot winds began to sweep over the range land. But Jean’s story was going “big.” Jean was throwing herself into the part heart and mind. She lived it. With Lite riding beside her, helping her with all his skill and energy and much enthusiasm, she almost forgot her great undertaking sometimes, she was so engrossed with her work. With his experience, suggesting frequent changes, she added new touches of realism to this story that made the case-hardened audience of the Great Western’s private projection room invent new ways of voicing their enthusiasm, when the negative films Pete Lowry sent in to headquarters were printed and given their trial run.

They were just well started when August came with its hot winds. They stayed and worked upon the serial until it was finished, and that meant that they stayed until the first October blizzard caught them while they were finishing the last reel.

Do you know what they did then? Jean changed a few scenes around at Lite’s suggestion, and they went out into the hills in the teeth of the storm and pictured Jean lost in the blizzard, and coming by chance upon the outlaws at their camp, which she and Lite and Lee had been hunting through all the previous installments of the story. It was great stuff,–that ride Jean made in the blizzard,–and that scene where, with numbed fingers and snow matted in her dangling braid, she held up the rustlers and marched them out of the hills, and met Lite coming in search of her.

You will remember it, if you have been frequenting the silent drama and were fortunate enough to see the picture. You may have wondered at the realism of those blizzard scenes, and you may have been curious to know how the camera got the effect. It was wonderful photography, of course; but then, the blizzard was real, and that pinched, half frozen look on Jean’s face in the close-up where she met Lite was real. Jean was so cold when she turned the rustlers over to Lite that when she started to dismount and fell in a heap,–you remember? –she was not acting at all. Neither was Lite acting when he plunged through the drift and caught Jean in his arms and held her close against him just as that scene ended. In the name of realism they cut the scene, because Lite showed that he forgot all about the outlaws and the part he was playing.

So they finished the picture, and the whole company packed their trunks thankfully and turned their faces and all their thoughts westward.

Jean was not at all sure that she wanted to go. It seemed almost as though she were setting aside her great undertaking; as though she were weakly deserting her dad when she closed the door for the last time upon her room and turned her back upon Lazy A coulee. But there were certain things which comforted her; Lite was going along to look after the horses, he told her just the day before they started. For Robert Grant Burns, with an eye to the advertising value of the move, had decided that Pard must go with them. He would have to hire an express car, anyway, he said, for the automobile and the scenery sets they had used for interiors. And there would be plenty of room for Pard and Lite’s horse and another which Robert Grant Burns had used to carry him to locations in rough country, where the automobile could not go. The car would run in passenger service, Burns said,–he’d fix that,–so Lite would be right with the company all the way out.

Jean appreciated all that as a personal favor, which merely proved how unsophisticated she really was. She did not know that Robert Grant Burns was thinking chiefly of furnishing material for the publicity man to use in news stories. She never once dreamed that the coming of “Jean, of the Lazy A” and Jean’s pet horse Pard, and of Lite, who had done so many surprising things in the picture, would be heralded in all the Los Angeles papers before ever they left Montana.

Jean was concerned chiefly with attending to certain matters which seemed to her of vital importance. If she must go, there was something which she must do first, –something which for three years she had shrunk from doing. So she told Robert Grant Burns that she would meet him and his company in Helena, and without a word of explanation, she left two days in advance of them, just after she had had another maddening talk with her Uncle Carl, wherein she had repeated her intention of employing a lawyer.

When she boarded the train at Helena, she did not tell even Lite just where she had been or what she had been doing. She did not need to tell Lite. He looked into her face and saw there the shadow of the high, stone wall that shut her dad away from the world, and he did not ask a single question.

CHAPTER XIX

IN LOS ANGELES

When she felt bewildered, Jean had the trick of appearing merely reserved; and that is what saved her from the charge of rusticity when Robert Grant Burns led her through the station gateway and into a small reception. No less a man than Dewitt, President of the Great Western Film Company, clasped her hand and held it, while he said how glad he was to welcome her. Jean, unawed by his greatness and the honor he was paying her, looked up at him with that distracting little beginning of a smile, and replied with that even-more distracting little drawl in her voice, and wondered why Mrs. Gay should become so plainly flustered all at once.

Dewitt took her by the arm, introduced her to a curious-eyed group with a warming cordiality of manner, and led her away through a crowd that stared and whispered, and up to a great, beautiful, purple machine with a colored chauffeur in dust-colored uniform. Dewitt was talking easily of trivial things, and shooting a question now and then over his shoulder at Robert Grant Burns, who had shed much of his importance and seemed indefinably subservient toward Mr. Dewitt. Jean turned toward him abruptly.

“Where’s Lite? Did you send some one to help him with Pard?” she asked with real concern in her voice. “Those three horses aren’t used to towns the size of this, Mr. Burns. Lite is going to have his hands full with Pard. If you will excuse me, Mr. Dewitt, I think I’ll go and see how he’s making out.”

Mr. Dewitt glanced over her head and met the delighted grin of Jim Gates, the publicity manager. The grin said that Jean was “running true to form,” which was a pet simile with Jim Gates, and usually accompanied that particular kind of grin. There would be an interesting half column in the next day’s papers about Jean’s arrival and her deep concern for Lite and her wonderful horse Pard, but of course she did not know that.

“I’ve got men here to help with the horses,” Mr. Dewitt assured her, while he gently urged her into the machine. “They’ll be brought right out to the studio. I’m taking you home with me in obedience to my wife’s, orders. She is anxious to meet the young woman who can out-ride and out-shoot any man on the screen, and can still be sweet and feminine and lovable. I’m quoting my wife, you see, though I won’t say those are not my sentiments also.”

“Your poor wife is going to receive a shock,” said Jean in an unimpressed tone. “But it’s dear of her to want to meet me.” Back of her speech was an irritated impatience that she should be gobbled and carried off like this, when she was sure that she ought to be helping Lite get that fool Pard unloaded and safely through the clang and clatter of the down-town district.

Robert Grant Burns, half facing her on a folding seat, sent her a queer, puzzled glance from under his eyebrows. Four months had Jean been working under his direction; four months had he studied her, and still she puzzled him. She was not ignorant–the girl had been out among civilized folks and had learned town ways; she was not stupid–she could keep him guessing, and he thought he knew all the quirks of human nature, too. Then why, in the name of common sense, did she take Dewitt and his patronage in this matter-of-fact way, as if it were his everyday business to meet strange employees and take them home to his wife? He glanced at Dewitt and caught a twinkle of perfect understanding in the bright blue eyes of his chief. Burns made a sound between a grunt and a chuckle, and turned his eyes away immediately; but Dewitt chose to make speech upon the subject.

“You haven’t spoiled our new leading woman– yet,” he observed idly.

“Oh, but he has,” Jean dissented. “He has got me trained so that when he says smile, my mouth stretches itself automatically. When he says sob, I sob. He just snaps his fingers, Mr. Dewitt, and I sit up and go through my tricks very nicely. You ought to see how nicely I do them.”

Mr. Dewitt put up a hand and pulled at his close- cropped, white mustache that could not hide the twitching of his lips. “I have seen,” he said drily, and leaned forward for a word with the liveried chauffeur. “Turn up on Broadway and stop at the Victoria,” he said, and the chin of the driver dropped an inch to prove he heard.

Dewitt laid his fingers on Jean’s arm to catch her attention. “Do you see that picture on the billboard over there?” he asked, with a special inflection in his nice, crisp voice. “Does it look familiar to you?”

Jean looked, and pinched her brows together. Just at first she did not comprehend. There was her name in fancy letters two feet high: “JEAN, OF THE LAZY A.” It blared at the passer-by, but it did not look familiar at all. Beneath was a high-colored poster of a girl on a horse. The horse was standing on its hind feet, pawing the air; its nostrils flared red; its tail swept like a willow plume behind. The machine slowed and stopped for the traffic signal at the crossing, and still Jean studied the poster. It certainly did not look in the least familiar.

“Is that supposed to be me, on that plum-colored horse?” she drawled, when they slid out slowly in the wake of a great truck.

“Why, don’t you like it?” Dewitt looked at Jim Gates, who was again grinning delightedly and surreptitiously scribbling something on the margin of a folded paper he was carrying.

Jean turned upon him a mildly resentful glance. “No, I don’t. Pard is not purple; he’s brown. And he’s got the dearest white hoofs and a white sock on his left hind foot; and he doesn’t snort fire and brimstone, either.” She glanced anxiously at the jam of wagons and automobiles and clanging street-cars. “I don’t know, though,” she amended ruefully, “I think perhaps he will, too, when he sees all this. I really ought to have stayed with him.”

“You don’t think Lite quite capable of taking care of him.”

“Oh, yes, of course he is! But I just feel that way.”

Dewitt shifted a little, so that he was half facing her, and could look at her without having to turn his head. If his eyes told anything of his thoughts, the President of the Great Western Film Company was curious to know how she felt about her position and her sudden fame and the work itself. Before they had worked their way into the next block, he decided that Jean was not greatly interested in any of these things, and he wondered why.

The machine slowed, swung to the curb, and crept forward and stopped in front of the Victoria. Dewitt looked at Burns and Pete Lowry, who was on the front seat.

“I thought you’d like to take a glance at the lobby display the Victoria is making,” he said casually. “They are running the Lazy A series, you know,–to capacity houses, too, they tell me. Shall we get out?”

The chauffeur reached back with that gesture of toleration and infinite boredom common to his kind and swung open the door.

Robert Grant Burns started up. “Come on, Jean,” he said eagerly. “I don’t suppose that eternal calm of yours will ever show a wrinkle on the surface, but let’s have a look, anyway.”

Pete Lowry was already out and half way across the pavement. Pete had lain awake in his bed, many’s the night, planning the posing of “stills” that would show Jean at her best; he had visioned them on display in theater lobbies, and now he collided with a hurrying shopper in his haste to see the actual fulfillment of those plans.

Jean herself was not so eager. She went with the others, and she saw herself pictured on Pard; on her two feet; and sitting upon a rock with her old Stetson tilted over one eye and her hair tousled with the wind. She was loading her six-shooter, and talking to Lite, who was sitting on his heels with a cigarette in his fingers, looking at her with that bottled-up look in his eyes. She did not remember when the picture was taken, but she liked that best of all. She saw herself leaning out of the window of her room at the Lazy A. She remembered that time. She was talking to Gil outside, and Pete had come up and planted his tripod directly in front of her, and had commanded her to hold her pose. She did not count them, but she had curious impressions of dozens of pictures of herself scattered here and there along the walls of the long, cool-looking lobby. Every single one of them was marked: “Jean, of the Lazy A.” Just that.

On a bulletin board in the middle of the entrance, just before the marble box-office, it was lettered again in dignified black type: “JEAN OF THE LAZY A.” Below was one word: “To-day.”

“It looks awfully queer,” said Jean to Mr. Dewitt, who wanted to know what she thought of it all; “they don’t explain what it’s all about, or anything.”

“No, they don’t.” Dewitt pulled his mustache and piloted her back to the machine. “They don’t have to.”

“No,” echoed Robert Grant Burns, with the fat chuckle of utter content in the knowledge of having achieved something. “From the looks of things, they don’t have to.” He looked at Jean so intently that she stared back at him, wondering what was the matter; and when he saw that she was wondering, he gave a snort.

“Good Lord!” he said to himself, just above a whisper, and looked away, despairing of ever reading the riddle of Jean’s unshakable composure. Was it pose Was the girl phlegmatic,–with that face which was so alive with the thoughts that shuttled back and forth behind those steady, talking eyes of hers? She was not stupid; Robert Grant Burns knew to his own discomfiture that she was not stupid. Nor was she one to pose; the absolute sincerity of her terrific frankness was what had worried Robert Grant Burns most. She must know that she had jumped into the front rank of popular actresses, and stood out before them all,–for the time being, at least. And,–he stole a measuring sidelong glance at her, just as he had done thousands of times in the past four months,–here she was in the private machine of the President of the Great Western Film Company, with that great man himself talking to her as to his honored guest. She had seen herself featured alone at one of the biggest motion-picture theaters in Los Angeles; so well known that “Jean, of the Lazy A” was deemed all-sufficient as information and advertisement. She had reached what seemed to Robert Grant Burns the final heights. And the girl sat there, calm, abstracted, actually not listening to Dewitt when he talked! She was not even thinking about him! Robert Grant Burns gave her another quick, resentful glance, and wondered what under heaven the girl WAS thinking about.

As a matter of fact, having accepted the fact that she seemed to have made a success of her pictures, her thoughts had drifted to what seemed to her more vital. Had she done wrong to come away out here, away from her problem? The distance worried her. She had not even found out who was the mysterious night-prowler, or what he wanted. He had never come again, after that night when Hepsy had scared him away. From long thinking about it, she had come to a vague, general belief that his visits were somehow connected with the murder; but in what manner, she could not even form a theory. That worried her. She wished now that she had told Lite about it. She was foolish not to have done something, instead of sticking her head under the bedclothes and just shivering till he left. Lite would have found out who the man was, and what he wanted. Lite would never have let him come and go like that. But the visits had seemed so absolutely without reason. There was nothing to steal, and nothing to find. Still, she wished she had told Lite, and let him find out who it was.

Then her talk with the great lawyer had been disquieting. He had not wanted to name his fee for defending her dad; but when he had named it, it did not seem so enormous as she had imagined it to be. He had asked a great many questions, and most of them puzzled Jean. He had said that he would take up the matter,–by which she believed he meant an investigation of her uncle’s title to the Lazy A. He said that he would see her father, and he told her that he had already been retained to investigate the whole thing, so that she need not worry about having to pay him a fee. That, he said, had already been arranged, though he did not feel at liberty to name his client. But he wanted to assure her that everything was being done that could be done.

She herself had seen her father. She shrank within herself and tried not to think of that horrible meeting. Her soul writhed under the tormenting memory of how she had seen him. She had not been able to talk to him at all, scarcely. The words would not come. She had said that she and Lite were on their way to Los Angeles, and would be there all winter. He had patted her shoulder with a tragic apathy in his manner, and had said that the change would do her good. And that was all she could remember that they had talked about. And then the guard came, and–

That is what she was thinking about while the big, purple machine slid smoothly through the tunnel, negotiated a rough stretch where the street-pavers were at work, and sped purring out upon the boulevard that stretched away to Hollywood and the hills. That was what she kept hidden behind the “eternal calm” that so irritated Robert Grant Burns and so delighted Dewitt and so interested Jim Gates, who studied her for what “copy” there was in her personality.

It was the same when, the next day, Dewitt himself took her over to the big plant which he spoke of as the studio. It was immense, and yet Jean seemed unimpressed. She was gladder to see Pard and Lite again than she was to meet the six-hundred-a-week star whose popularity she seemed in a fair way to outrival. Men and women who were “in stock,” and therefore within the social pale, were introduced to her and said nice, hackneyed things about how they admired her work and were glad to welcome her. She felt the warm air of good-fellowship that followed her everywhere. All of these people seemed to accept her at once as one of themselves. When she noticed it, she was amused at the way the “extras” stood back and looked at her and whispered together. More than once she overheard what seemed almost to have become a catch-phrase out here; “Jean of the lazy A” was the phrase.

Jean was not made of wood, understand. In a manner she recognized all these little tributes, and to a certain degree she appreciated them. She was glad that she had made such a success of it, but she was glad because it would help her to take her dad away from that horrible, ghastly place and that horrible, ghastly death- in-life under which he lived. In three years he had grown old and stooped–her dad!

And Burns twitted her ironically because she could not simper and lose her head over the attentions these people were loading upon her! Save for the fact that in this way she could earn a good deal of money, and could pay that lawyer Rossman, and trace Art Osgood, she would not have stayed; she could not have endured the staying. For the easier they made life for her, the greater contrast did they make between her and her dad.

Gil brought her a great bunch of roses, unbelievably beautiful and fragrant, and laughed and told her they didn’t look much like those snowdrifts she waded through the last day they worked on the Lazy A serial. For just a minute he thought Jean was going to throw them at him, and he worried himself into sleeplessness, poor boy, wondering how he had offended her, and how he could make amends. Could he have looked into Jean’s soul, he would have seen that it was seared with the fresh memory of iron bars and high walls and her dad who never saw any roses; and that the contrast between their beauty and the terrible barrenness that surrounded him was like a blow in her face.

Dewitt himself sensed that something was wrong with her. She was not her natural self, and he knew it, though his acquaintance with her was a matter of hours only. Part of his business it was to study people, to read them; he read Jean now, in a general way. Not being a clairvoyant, he of course had no inkling of the very real troubles that filled her mind, though the effect of those troubles he saw quite plainly. He watched her quietly for a day, and then he applied the best remedy he knew.

“You’ve just finished a long, hard piece of work,” he said in his crisp, matter-of-fact way, on the second morning after her arrival. “There is going to be a delay here while we shape things up for the winter, and it is my custom to keep my people in the very best condition to work right up to the standard. So you are all going to have a two-weeks vacation, Jean-of-the-Lazy- A. At full salary, of course; and to put you yourself into the true holiday spirit, I’m going to raise your salary to a hundred and seventy-five a week. I consider you worth it,” he added, with a quieting gesture of uplifted hand, “or you may be sure I wouldn’t pay it.

“Get some nice old lady to chaperone you, and go and play. The ocean is good; get somewhere on the beach. Or go to Catalina and play there. Or stay here, and go to the movies. Go and see `Jean, of the Lazy A,’ and watch how the audience lives with her on the screen. Go up and talk to the wife. She told me to bring you up for dinner. You go climb into my machine, and tell Bob to take you to the house now. Run along, Jean of the Lazy A! This is an order from your chief.”

Jean wanted to cry. She held the roses, that she almost hated for their very beauty and fragrance, close pressed in her arms, while she went away toward the machine. Dewitt looked after her, thought she meant to obey him, and turned to greet a great man of the town who had been waiting for five minutes to speak to him.

Jean did not climb into the purple car and tell Bob to drive her to “the house.” She walked past it without even noticing that it stood there, an aristocrat among the other machines parked behind the great studio that looked like a long, low warehouse. She knew the straightest, shortest trail to the corrals, you may be sure of that. She took that trail.

Pard was standing in a far corner under a shed, switching his tail methodically at the October crop of flies. His head lay over the neck of a scrawny little buckskin, for which he had formed a sudden and violent attachment, and his eyes were half closed while he drowsed in lazy content. Pard was not worrying about anything. He looked so luxuriously happy that Jean had not the heart to disturb him, even with her comfort- seeking caresses. She leaned her elbows on the corral gate and watched him awhile. She asked a bashful, gum-chewing youth if he could tell her where to find Lite Avery. But the youth seemed never to have heard of Lite Avery, and Jean was too miserable to explain and describe Lite, and insist upon seeing him. She walked over to the nearest car-line and caught the next street car for the city. Part of her chief’s orders at least she would obey. She would go down to the Victoria and see “Jean, of the Lazy A,” but she was not going because of any impulse of vanity, or to soothe her soul with the applause of strangers. She wanted to see the ranch again. She wanted to see the dear, familiar line of the old bluff that framed the coulee, and ride again with Lite through those wild places they had chosen for the pictures. She wanted to lose herself for a little while among the hills that were home.

CHAPTER XX

CHANCE TAKES A HAND

A huge pipe organ was filling the theater with a vast undertone that was like the whispering surge of a great wind. Jean went into the soft twilight and sat down, feeling that she had shut herself away from the harsh, horrible world that held so much of suffering. She sighed and leaned her head back against the curtained enclosure of the loges, and closed her eyes and listened to the big, sweeping harmonies that were yet so subdued.

Down next the river, in a sheltered little coulee, there was a group of great bull pines. Sometimes she had gone there and leaned against a tree trunk, and had shut her eyes and listened to the vast symphony which the wind and the water played together. She forgot that she had come to see a picture which she had helped to create. She held her eyes shut and listened; and that horror of high walls and iron bars that had haunted her for days, and the aged, broken man who was her father, dimmed and faded and was temporarily erased; the lightness of her lips eased a little; the tenseness relaxed from her face, as it does from one who sleeps.

But the music changed, and her mood changed with it. She did not know that this was because the story pictured upon the screen had changed, but she sat up straight and opened her eyes, and felt almost as though she had just awakened from a vivid dream.

A Mexican series of educational pictures were being shown. Jean looked, and leaned forward with a little gasp. But even as she fixed her eyes and startled attention upon it, that scene was gone, and she was reading mechanically of refugees fleeing to the border line.

She must have been asleep, she told herself, and had gotten things mixed up in her dreams. She shook herself mentally and remembered that she ought to take off her hat; and she tried to fix her mind upon the pictures. Perhaps she had been mistaken; perhaps she had not seen what she believed she had seen. But– what if it were true? What if she had really seen and not imagined it? It couldn’t be true, she kept telling herself; of course, it couldn’t be true! Still, her mind clung to that instant when she had first opened her eyes, and very little of what she saw afterwards reached her brain at all.

Then she had, for the first time in her life, the strange experience of seeing herself as others saw her. The screen announcement and expectant stir that greeted it caught her attention, and pulled her back from the whirl of conjecture into which she had been plunged. She watched, and she saw herself ride up to the foreground on Pard. She saw herself look straight out at the audience with that peculiar little easing of the lips and the lightening of the eyes which was just the infectious beginning of a smile. Involuntarily she smiled back at her pictured self, just as every one else was smiling back. For that, you must know, was what had first endeared her so to the public; the human quality that compelled instinctive response from those who looked at her. So Jean in the loge smiled at Jean on the screen. Then Lite–dear, silent, long-legged Lite!–came loping up, and pushed back his hat with the gesture that she knew so well, and spoke to her and smiled; and a lump filled the throat of Jean in the loge, though she could not have told why. Then Jean on the screen turned and went riding with Lite back down the trail, with her hat tilted over one eye because of the sun, and with one foot swinging free of the stirrup in that absolute unconsciousness of pose that had first caught the attention of Robert Grant Burns and his camera man. Jean in the loge heard the ripple of applause among the audience and responded to it with a perfectly human thrill.

Presently she was back at the Lazy A, living again the scenes which she herself had created. This was the fourth or fifth picture,–she did not at the moment remember just which. At any rate, it had in it that incident when she had first met the picture-people in the hills and mistaken Gil Huntley and the other boys for real rustlers stealing her uncle’s cattle. You will remember that Robert Grant Burns had told Pete to take all of that encounter, and he had later told Jean to write her scenario so as to include that incident.

Jean blushed when she saw herself ride up to those three and “throw down on them” with her gun. She had been terribly chagrined over that performance! But now it looked awfully real, she told herself with a little glow of pride. Poor old Gil! They hadn’t caught her roping him, anyway, and she was glad of that. He would have looked absurd, and those people would have laughed at him. She watched how she had driven the cattle back up the coulee, with little rushes up the bank to head off an unruly cow that had ideas of her own about the direction in which she would travel. She loved Pard, for the way he tossed his head and whirled the cricket in his bit with his tongue, and obeyed the slightest touch on the rein. The audience applauded that cattle drive; and Jean was almost betrayed into applauding it herself.

Later there was a scene where she had helped Lite Avery and Lee Milligan round up a bunch of cattle and cut out three or four, which were to be sold to a butcher for money to take her mother to the doctor. Lite rode close to the camera and looked straight at her, and Jean bit her lips sharply as tears stung her lashes for some inexplicable reason. Dear old Lite! Every line in his face she knew, every varying, vagrant expression, every little twitch of his lips and eyelids that meant so much to those who knew him well enough to read his face. Jean’s eyes softened, cleared, and while she looked, her lips parted a little, and she did not know that she was smiling.

She was thinking of the day, not long ago, when she had seen a bird fly into the loft over the store-house, and she had climbed in a spirit of idle curiosity to see what the bird wanted there. She had found Lite’s bed neatly smoothed for the day, the pillow placed so that, lying there, he could look out through the opening and see the house and the path that led to it. There was the faint aroma of tobacco about the place. Jean had known at once just why that bed was there, and almost she knew how long it had been there. She had never once hinted that she knew; and Lite would never tell her, by look or word, that he was watching her welfare.

Here came Gil, dashing up to the brow of the hill, dismounting and creeping behind a rock, that he might watch them working with the cattle in the valley below. Jean met his pictured approach with a little smile of welcome. That was the scene where she told him he got off the horse like a sack of oats, and had shown him how to swing down lightly and with a perfect balance, instead of coming to the earth with a thud of his feet. Gil had taken it all in good faith; the camera proved now how well he had followed her instructions. And afterwards, while the assistant camera-man (with whom Jean never had felt acquainted) shouldered the camera and tripod, and they all tramped down the hill to another location, there had been a little scene in the shade of that rock, between Jean and the star villain. She blushed a little and wondered if Gil remembered that tentative love-making scene which Burns had unconsciously cut short with a bellowing order to rehearse the next scene.

It was wonderful, it was fascinating to sit there and see those days of hard, absorbing work relived in the story she had created. Jean lost herself in watching how Jean of the Lazy A came and went and lived her life bravely in the midst of so much that was hard. Jean in the loge remembered how Burns had yelled, “Smile when you come up; look light-hearted! And then let your face change gradually, while you listen to your mother crying in there. There’ll be a cut-back to show her down on her knees crying before Bob’s chair. Let that tired, worried look come into your face,–the load’s dropping on to your shoulders again,–that kind of dope. Get me?” Jean in the loge remembered how she had been told to do this deliberately, just out of her imagination. And then she saw how Jean on the screen came whistling up to the house, swinging her quirt by its loop and with a spring in her walk, and making you feel that it was a beautiful day and that all the meadow larks were singing, and that she had just had a gallop on Pard that made her forget that she ever looked trouble in the face.

Then Jean in the loge looked and saw screen–Jean’s mother kneeling before Bob’s chair and sobbing so that her shoulders shook. She looked and saw screen Jean stop whistling and swinging her quirt; saw her stand still in the path and listen; saw the smile fade out of her eyes. Jean in the loge thought suddenly of that moment when she had looked at dad coming in where she waited, and swallowed a lump in her throat. A woman near her gave a little stifled sob of sympathy when screen-Jean turned and went softly around the corner of the house with all the light gone from her face and all the spring gone out of her walk.

Jean in the loge gave a sigh of relaxed tension and looked around her. The seats were nearly all full, and every one was gazing fixedly forward, lost in the pictured story of Jean on the screen. So that was what all those made-to-order smiles and frowns meant! Jean had done them at Burns’ command, because she had seen that the others simulated different emotions whenever he told them to. She knew, furthermore, that she had done them remarkably well; so well that people responded to every emotion she presented to them. She was surprised at the vividness of every one of those cut- and-dried scenes. They imposed upon her, even, after all the work and fussing she had gone through to get them to Burns’ liking. And there, in the cool gloom of the Victoria, Jean for the first time realized to the full the true ability of Robert Grant Burns. For the first time she really appreciated him and respected him, and was grateful to him for what he had taught her to do.

Her mood changed abruptly when the Jean picture ended. The music changed to the strain that had filled the great place when she entered, nearly an hour before. Jean sat up straight again and waited, alert, impatient, anxious to miss no smallest part of that picture which had startled her so when she had first looked at the screen. If the thing was true which she half believed–if it were true! So she stared with narrowed lids, intent, watchful, her whole mind concentrated upon what she should presently see.

“Warring Mexico!” That was the name of it; a Lubin special release, of the kind technically called “educational.” Jean held her breath, waiting for the scene that might mean so much to her. There: this must be it, she thought with a flush of inner excitement. This surely must be the one:

“NOGALES, MEXICO. FEDERAL TROOPS OF GENERAL KOSTERLISKY, WITH AMERICAN SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE SERVING ON STAFF OF NOTED GENERAL.”

Jean had it stamped indelibly upon her brain. She waited, with a quick intake of breath when the picture stood out with a sudden clarity before her eyes.

A “close-up” group of officers and men,–and some of the men Americans in face, dress, and manner. But it was one man, and one only, at whom she looked. Tall he was, and square-shouldered and lean; with his hat set far back on his head and a half smile curling his lips, and his eyes looking straight into the camera. Standing there with his weight all on one foot, in that attitude which cowboys call “hipshot.” Art Osgood! She was sure of it! Her hands clenched in her lap. Art Osgood, at Nogales, Mexico. Serving on the staff of General Kosterlisky. Was the man mad, to stand there publicly before the merciless, revealing eye of a motion-picture camera? Or did his vanity blind him to the risk he was taking?

The man at whom she sat glaring glanced sidewise at some person unseen; and Jean knew that glance, that turn of the head. He smiled anew and lifted his American-made Stetson a few inches above his head and held it so in salute. Just so had he lifted and held his hat high one day, when she had turned and ridden away from him down the trail. Jean caught herself just as her lips opened to call out to him in recognition and sharp reproach. He turned and walked away to where the troopers were massed in the background. It was thus that she had first glimpsed him for one instant before the scene ended; it was just as he turned his face away that she had opened her eyes, and thought it was Art Osgood who was walking away from the camera.

She waited a minute, staring abstractedly at the refugees who were presented next. She wished that she knew when the picture had been taken,–how long ago. Her experience with motion-picture making, her listening to the shop-talk of the company, had taught her much; she knew that sometimes weeks elapse between the camera’s work and the actual projection of a picture upon the theater screens. Still, this was, in a sense, a news release, and therefore in all probability hurried to the public. Art Osgood might still be at Nogales, Mexico, wherever that was. He might; and Jean made up her mind and laid her plans while she sat there pinning on her hat.

She got up quietly and slipped out. She was going to Nogales, Mexico, wherever that was. She was going to get Art Osgood, and she didn’t care whether she had to fight her way clear through “Warring Mexico.” She would find him and get him and bring him back.

In the lobby, while she paused with a truly feminine instinct to tip her hat this way and that before the mirror, and give her hair a tentative pat or two at the back, the grinning face of Lite Avery in his gray Stetson appeared like an apparition before her eyes. She turned quickly.

“Why, Lite!” she said, a little startled.

“Why, Jean!” he mimicked, in the bantering voice that was like home to her. “Don’t rush off; haven’t seen you to-day. Wait till I get you a ticket, and then you come back and help me admire ourselves. I came down on a long lope when somebody said you caught a street car headed this way. Thought maybe I’d run across you here. Knew you couldn’t stay away much longer from seeing how you look. Ain’t too proud to sit alongside a rough-neck puncher, are you?”

Jean looked at him understandingly. Lite’s exuberance was unusual; but she knew, as well as though he had told her, that he had been lonesome in this strange city, and that he was overjoyed at the sight of her, who was his friend. She unpinned her hat which she had been at some pains to adjust at the exact angle decreed by fashion.

“Yes, I’ll go back with you,” she drawled. “I want to see how you like the sight of yourself just as you are. It–it’s good for one, after the first shock wears off.” She would not say a word about that Mexican picture, she thought; but she wanted to see if Lite also would recognize Art Osgood, and feel as sure of his identity as she had felt. That would make her doubly sure of her self. She could do what she meant to do without any misgivings whatsoever. She could afford to wait a little while and have the pleasure of Lite’s presence beside her. Lite was homesick and lonesome;–she felt it in every tone and in every look;–almost as homesick and lonesome as she was herself. She would not hurt him by going off and leaving him alone, even if she had not wanted to be with him and to watch the effect that Mexican picture would have upon him. Lite believed Art Osgood was in the Klondyke. She would wait and see what he believed after he had seen that Nogales picture

She waited. She had missed Lite in the last day or so; she had seemed almost as far away from him as from the Lazy A. But all the while she talked to him in whispers when he had wanted to discuss the Jean picture, she was waiting, just waiting, for that Nogales picture.

When it came at last, Jean turned her head and watched Lite. And Lite gave a real start and said something under his breath, and plucked at her sleeve afterwards to attract her attention.

“Look–quick! That fellow standing there with his arms folded. Skin me alive if it isn’t Art Osgood!”

“Are you sure?” Jean studied him.

“Sure? Where’re your eyes? Look at him! It sure ain’t anybody else, Jean. Now, what do you reckon he’s doing down in Mexico?”

CHAPTER XXI

JEAN BELIEVES THAT SHE TAKES MATTERS INTO

HER OWN HANDS

After all, Jean did not have to fight her way clear through “Warring Mexico” and back again, in order to reach Nogales. She let Lite take her to the snug little apartment which she was to share with Muriel and her mother, and she fancied that she had been very crafty and very natural in her manner all the while he was with her, and that Lite did not dream of what she had in her mind to do. At any rate, she watched him stalk away on his high-heeled riding-boots, and she thought that his mind was perfectly at ease. (Jean, I fear, never will understand Lite half as well as Lite has always understood Jean.)

She caught the next down-town car and went straight to the information bureau of the Southern Pacific, established for the convenience of the public and the sanity of employees who have something to do besides answer foolish questions.

She found a young man there who was not averse to talking at length with a young woman who was dressed trimly in a street suit of the latest fashion, and who had almost entrancing, soft drawl to her voice and a most fascinating way of looking at one. This young man appeared to know a great deal, and to be almost eager to pass along his wisdom. He knew all about Nogales, Mexico, for instance, and just what train would next depart in that general direction, and how much it would cost, and how long she would have to wait in Tucson for the once-a-day train to Nogales, and when she might logically expect to arrive in that squatty little town that might be said to be really and truly divided against itself. Here the nice young man became facetious.

“Bible tells us a city divided against itself cannot stand,” he informed Jean quite gratuitously. “Well, maybe that’s straight goods, too. But Nogales is cut right through at the waist line with the international boundary line. United States customhouse on one corner of the street, Mexican customhouse in talking distance on the other corner. Great place for holdups, that!” This was a joke, and Jean smiled obligingly. “First the United States holds you up, and then the Mexicans. You get it coming and going. Well, Nogales don’t have to stand. It squats. It’s adobe mostly.”

Jean was interested, and she did not discourage the nice young man. She let him say all he could think of on the subject of Nogales and the Federal troops stationed there, and on warring Mexico generally. When she left him, she felt as if she knew a great deal about the end of her journey. So she smiled and thanked the nice young man in that soft drawl that lingered pleasantly in his memory, and went over to another window and bought a ticket to Nogales. She moved farther along to another window and secured a Pullman ticket which gave her lower five in car four for her comfort.

With an impulse of wanting to let her Uncle Carl know that she was not forgetting her mission, she sent him this laconic telegram:

Have located Art. Will bring him back with me. JEAN.

After that, she went home and packed a suit-case and her six-shooter and belt. She did not, after all, know just what might happen in Nogales, Mexico, but she meant to bring back Art Osgood if he were to be found alive; hence the six-shooter.

That evening she told Muriel that she was going to run away and have her vacation–her “vacation” hunting down and capturing a murderer who had taken refuge in the Mexican army!–and that she would write when she knew just where she would stop. Then she went away alone in a taxi to the depot, and started on her journey with a six-shooter jostling a box of chocolates in her suit-case, and with her heart almost light again, now that she was at last following a clue that promised something at the other end.

It was all just as the nice young man had told her. Jean arrived in Tucson, and she left on time, on the once-a-day train to Nogales.

Lite also arrived in Tucson on time, though Jean did not see him, since he descended from the chair car with some caution just as she went into the depot. He did not depart on time as it happened; he was thirsty, and he went off to find something wetter than water to drink, and while he was gone the once-a-day train also went off through the desert. Lite saw the last pair of wheels it owned go clipping over the switch, and he stood in the middle of the track and swore. Then he went to the telegraph office and found out that a freight left for Nogales in ten minutes. He hunted up the conductor and did things to his bank roll, and afterwards climbed into the caboose on the sidetrack. Lite has been so careful to keep in the background, through all these chapters, that it seems a shame to tell on him now. But I am going to say that, little as Jean suspected it, he had been quite as interested in finding Art Osgood as had she herself. When he saw her pass through the gate to the train, in Los Angeles, that was his first intimation that she was going to Nogales; so he had stayed in the chair car out of sight. But it just shows how great minds run in the same channel; and how, without suspecting one another, these two started at the same time upon the same quest.

Jean stared out over the barrenness that was not like the barrenness of Montana, and tried not to think that perhaps Art Osgood had by this time drifted on into obscurity. Still, if he had drifted on, surely she could trace him, since he had been serving on the staff of a general and should therefore be pretty well known. What she really hated most to think of was the possibility that he might have been killed. They did get killed, sometimes, down there where there was so much fighting going on all the time.

When the shadows of the giant cactus stretched mutilated hands across the desert sand, and she believed that Nogales was near, Jean carried her suit-case to the cramped dressing-room and took out her six-shooter and buckled it around her. Then she pulled her coat down over it with a good deal of twisting and turning before the dirty mirror to see that it looked all right, and not in the least as though a perfect lady was packing a gun.

She went back and dipped fastidious fingers into the box of chocolates, and settled herself to nibble candy and wait for what might come. She felt very calm and self- possessed and sure of herself. Her only fear was that Art Osgood might have been killed, and his lips closed for all time. So they rattled away through the barrenness and drew near to Nogales.

Casa del Sonora, whither she went, was an old, two- story structure of the truly Spanish type, and it was kept by a huge, blubbery creature with piggish eyes and a bloated, purple countenance and the palsy. As much of him as appeared to be human appeared to be Irish; and Jean, after the first qualm of repulsion, when she faced him over the hotel register, detected a certain kindly solicitude in his manner, and was reassured.

So far, everything had run smoothly, like a well- staged play. Absurdly simple, utterly devoid of any element of danger, any vexatious obstacle to the immediate achievement of her purpose! But Jean was not thrown off her guard because of the smoothness of the trail.

The trip from Tucson had been terribly tiresome; she was weary in every fibre, it seemed to her. But for all that she intended, sometime that evening, to meet Art Osgood if he were in town. She intended to take him with her on the train that left the next morning. She thought it would be a good idea to rest now, and to proceed deliberately, lest she frustrate all her plans by over-eagerness.

Perhaps she slept a little while she lay upon the bed and schooled herself to calmness. A band, somewhere, playing a pulsing Spanish air, brought her to her feet. She went to the window and looked out, and saw that the street lay cool and sunless with the coming of dusk.

From the American customhouse just on the opposite corner came Lite Avery, stalking leisurely along in his high-heeled riding-boots. Jean drew back with a little flutter of the pulse and watched him, wondering how he came to be in Nogales. She had last seen him boarding a car that would take him out to the Great Western Studio; and now, here he was, sauntering across the street as if he lived here. It was like finding his bed up in the loft and knowing all at once that he had been keeping watch all the while, thinking of her welfare and never giving her the least hint of it. That at least was understandable. But to her there was something uncanny about his being here in Nogales. When he was gone, she stepped out through the open window to the veranda that ran the whole length of the hotel, and looked across the street into Mexico.

She was, she decided critically, about fifteen feet from the boundary line. Just across the street fluttered the Mexican flag from the Mexican customhouse. A Mexican guard lounged against the wall, his swarthy face mask-like in its calm. While she leaned over the railing and stared curiously at that part of the street which was another country, from the hills away to the west, where were camped soldiers,–the American soldiers,–who prevented the war from slopping over the line now and then into Arizona, came the clear notes of a bugle held close-pressed against the lips of a United States soldier in snug-fitting khaki. The boom of the sundown salute followed immediately after. In the street below her, Mexicans and Americans mingled amiably and sauntered here and there, killing time during that bored interval between eating and the evening’s amusement.

Just beyond the Mexican boundary, the door of a long, adobe cantina was flung open, and a group of men came out and paused as if they were wondering what they should do next, and where they should go. Jean looked them over curiously. Mexicans they were not, though they had some of the dress which belonged on that side of the boundary.

Americans they were; one knew by the set of their shoulders, by the little traits of race which have nothing to do with complexion or speech.

Jean caught her breath and leaned forward. There was Art Osgood, standing with his back toward her and with one palm spread upon his hip in the attitude she knew so well. If only he would turn! Should she run down the stairs and go over there and march him across the line at the muzzle of her revolver? The idea repelled her, now that she had actually come to the point of action.

Jean, now that the crisis had arrived, used her woman’s wile, rather than the harsher but perhaps less effective weapons of a man.

“Oh, Art!” she called, just exactly as she would have called to him on the range, in Montana “Hello, Art!”

Art Osgood wheeled and sent a startled, seeking glance up at the veranda; saw her and knew who it was that had called him, and lifted his hat in the gesture that she knew so well. Jean’s fingers were close to her gun, though she was not conscious of it, or of the strained, tense muscles that waited the next move.

Art, contrary to her expectations, did the most natural thing in the world. He grinned and came hurrying toward her with the long, eager steps of one who goes to greet a friend after an absence that makes of that meeting an event. Jean watched him cross the street. She waited, dazed by the instant success of her ruse, while he disappeared under the veranda. She heard his feet upon the stairs. She heard him come striding down the hall to the glass-paneled door. She saw him coming toward her, still grinning in his joy at the meeting.

“Jean Douglas! By all that’s lucky!” he was exclaiming. “Where in the world did you light down from?” He came to a stop directly in front of her, and held out his hand in unsuspecting friendship.

CHAPTER XXII

JEAN MEETS ONE CRISIS AND CONFRONTS ANOTHER

“Well, say! This is like seeing you walk out of that picture that’s running at the Teatro Palacia. You sure are making a hit with those moving- pictures; made me feel like I’d met somebody from home to stroll in there and see you and Lite come riding up, large as life. How is Lite, anyway?”

If Art Osgood felt any embarrassment over meeting her, he certainly gave no sign of it. He sat down on the railing, pushed back his hat, and looked as though he was preparing for a real soul-feast of reminiscent gossip. “Just get in?” he asked, by way of opening wider the channel of talk. He lighted a cigarette and flipped the match down into the street. “I’ve been here three or four months. I’m part of the Mexican revolution, though I don’t reckon I look it. We been keeping things pretty well stirred up, down this way. You looking for picture dope? Lubin folks are copping all kinds of good stuff here. You ain’t with them, are you?”

Jean braced herself against slipping into easy conver- sation with this man who seemed so friendly and unsuspicious and so conscience-free. Killing a man, she thought, evidently did not seem to him a matter of any moment; perhaps because he had since then become a professional killer of men. After planning exactly how she should meet any contingency that might arise, she found herself baffled. She had not expected to meet this attitude. She was not prepared to meet it. She had taken it for granted that Art Osgood would shun a meeting; that she would have to force him to face her. And here he was, sitting on the porch rail and swinging one spurred and booted foot, smiling at her and talking, in high spirits over the meeting–or a genius at acting. She eyed him uncertainly, trying to adjust herself to this emergency.

Art came to a pause and looked at her inquiringly. “What’s the matter?” he demanded. “You called me up here–and I sure was tickled to death to come, all right!–and now you stand there looking like I was a kid that had been caught whispering, and must be kept after school. I know the symptoms, believe me! You’re sore about something I’ve said. What, don’t you like to have anybody talk about you being a movie- queen? You sure are all of that. You’ve got a license to be proud of yourself. Or maybe you didn’t know you was speaking to a Mexican soldier, or something like that.” He made a move to rise. “Ex-cuse ME, if I’ve said something I hadn’t ought. I’ll beat it, while the beating’s good.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll stay right where you are.” His frank acceptance of her hostile attitude steadied Jean. “Do you think I came all the way down here just to say hello?”

“Search me.” Art studied her curiously. “I never could keep track of what you thought and what you meant, and I guess you haven’t grown any easier to read since I saw you last. I’ll be darned if I know what you came for; but it’s a cinch you didn’t come just to be riding on the cars.”

“No,” drawled Jean, watching him. “I didn’t. I came after you.”

Art Osgood stared, while his cheeks darkened with the flush of confusion. He laughed a little. “I sure wish that was the truth,” he said. “Jean, you never would have to go very far after any man with two eyes in his head. Don’t rub it in.”

“I did,” said Jean calmly. “I came after you. I’d have found you if I had to hunt all through Mexico and fight both armies for you.”

“Jean!” There was a queer, pleading note in Art’s voice. “I wish I could believe that, but I can’t. I ain’t a fool.”

“Yes, you are.” Jean contradicted him pitilessly. “You were a fool when you thought you could go away and no one think you knew anything at all about– Johnny Croft.”

Art’s fingers had been picking at a loose splinter on the wooden rail whereon he sat. He looked down at it, jerked it loose with a sharp twist, and began snapping off little bits with his thumb and forefinger. In a minute he looked up at Jean, and his eyes were different. They were not hostile; they were merely cold and watchful and questioning

“Well?”

“Well, somebody did think so. I’ve thought so for three years, and so I’m here.” Jean found that her breath was coming fast, and that as she leaned back against a post and gripped the rail on either side, her arms were quivering like the legs of a frightened horse. Still, her voice had sounded calm enough.

Art Osgood sat with his shoulders drooped forward a little, and painstakingly snipped off tiny bits of the splinter. After a short silence, he turned his head and looked at her again.

“I shouldn’t think you’d want to stir up that trouble after all this while,” he said. “But women are queer. I can’t see, myself, why you’d want to bother hunting me up on account of–that.”

Jean weighed his words, his look, his manner, and got no clue at all to what was going on back of his eyes. On the surface, he was just a tanned, fairly good-looking young man who has been reluctantly drawn into an unpleasant subject.

“Well, I did consider it worth while bothering to hunt you up,” she told him flatly. “If you don’t think it’s important, you at least won’t object to going back with me?”

Again his glance went to her face, plainly startled. “Go back with you?” he repeated. “What for?”